Cult Icons: Frank Oz

January 12, 2018
A major player when it comes to many of pop culture institutions, this puppeteer, humourist and film director remains an under-appreciated trailblazer.

Filmmaker and puppeteer extraordinaire, Frank Oz was born in England in 1944 and moved to the United States as a youngster. The son of puppeteers, he was perhaps destined to venture into the family profession and started puppeteering as an adolescent. He was only 17 when he met kindred spirit Jim Henson. He joined Henson’s fledgling company and operated the right hand for Jim’s beloved character Rowlf the Dog on variety program The Jimmy Dean Show. In 1969, after a few years on Jimmy Dean and working on commercials, Henson helped launch the ground-breaking children’s education program, Sesame Street. The program was a phenomenon and Oz, who had joined his mentor on the show, was one of its key performers, bringing to life such creations as the maniacal Cookie Monster, the lovable Grover, and the humorously dull Bert. Whilst all three of these would go on to become pop culture icons, it was Bert, teamed with Henson’s mischievous Ernie, that would highlight Frank and Jim’s undeniable chemistry as performers. Sesame Street proved an anomaly, in that it would provide equal joy to parents as it would its targeted pre-schoolers due to its clever writing and talented troupe of comedic performers.

The show was a smash and led to a number of first-rate Muppet specials throughout the 1970s, including The Frog Prince (1971) and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen (1972). However, it was never the intention for the Muppets to be seen wholly as a children’s act and Oz and Henson were determined to branch out and showcase the Muppets to a broader audience. This led to them becoming a part of the inaugural season of a sketch comedy series that would go on to become an institution, Saturday Night Live (1975).

Despite best intentions, The Muppets proved an uneven mix with the rambunctious cast of rising comedy stars and did not return after the first season. Instead, Henson would go on to launch a wholly original prime-time series titled The Muppet Show (1976). Introducing a cavalcade of original Muppet characters teamed each week with a celebrity guest star, The Muppet Show was aimed at families; adults as much as kids. Oz’s skill as a comic performer was showcased through creations such as insecure comedian Fozzie Bear, wild drummer Animal, prudish conservative Sam Eagle, and undoubtedly the break-out star of the series, the diva Miss Piggy. Piggy, and her relationship with her beloved Kermit the Frog (performed by Henson) led to the characters becoming superstars and earned The Muppet Show the mantle as the most popular television program in the world, with celebrities clamouring to guest star. The success of the show prompted the characters starring in their first feature film, The Muppet Movie. Released in 1979 and fueled by timeless Paul Williams songs, it was a huge hit.

It was during the run of The Muppet Show that George Lucas was prepping his first sequel to his box office phenomenon Star Wars. Lucas had a bold plan to introduce a new central character to the series that would be performed as a puppet. Lucas, of course, sought out Jim Henson. Snowed under by a multitude of existing projects, Henson recommended Oz who accepted the challenge. The character was the mysterious Jedi Master Yoda. Upon its release in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back held Yoda back from much of its advertising. There was no doubt that the success of Yoda would make or break the film. If he looked like a Muppet, the audience was no chance of taking the diminutive green Jedi with the sage advice seriously. Through the talent of Oz and his support team (and the committed performance of co-star Mark Hamill), Yoda was a smashing achievement and went on to become an iconic character beloved by Star Wars fans around the globe. In fact, so ground breaking was Oz’s performance that George Lucas petitioned to have Oz nominated for an Academy Award (sadly rejected by the Academy).

Always eager to stretch his talent, Oz would make his directorial debut in 1982. He and Henson co-directed The Dark Crystal (1982), an all-puppet fantasy adventure. Hugely ambitious, the film’s box office was fruitful upon release and it’s gone on to earn a cult following; still adored by those who were scarred as children by its frightening imagery. Oz would go on to direct his first solo feature in 1984 with the third Muppet movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan. A charming addition to the franchise, the film is arguably the best of the series and introduced the world to the Muppet Babies, who would go on to become an animated hit in their own right.

The film’s success kick-started Oz’s career as a director, a path that would see him work less frequently with the Muppets. In 1986 he directed Little Shop of Horrors, a rollicking musical/comedy with an all-star comic cast (including Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray) that performed moderately at the time but has gone on to earn a cult following. He followed this with a string of popular films. The classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, What About Bob? (1991) with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, Housesitter (1992) with Martin and Goldie Hawn, the family fantasy The Indian in the Cupboard (1995), In & Out (1997) with Kevin Kline, and reuniting yet again with Martin alongside Eddie Murphy in the riotous Bowfinger (1999).

In 2001, Oz not only directed his first drama, but he was able to unite screen legends Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando for the first time (along with Edward Norton) for crime thriller The Score. In 2007, he directed the surprise British hit Death at a Funeral. During this run, Oz still found time to occasionally perform on Sesame Street, reprise Yoda for further Star Wars films, and contribute to a number of Muppet productions (Oz would eventually hand his characters over to new performers at the turn of the century).

Oz’s latest project is his first documentary, and goes back to his Muppet roots. Muppet Guys Talking will be released online in March (after playing to wide acclaim at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival). The conversational film reunites Oz with fellow veteran Muppet performers Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill and Bill Barretta to discuss their craft and experiences collaborating with Jim Henson. It looks to be a treat for Muppet fans.

Over the last 50 years, Oz has had a remarkable career as a filmmaker and performer, managing to entertain audiences of all ages and generations, usually sight unseen (we haven’t touched on his many on-screen cameos in a number of John Landis directed cult films including The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London). Perhaps Cookie Monster helped teach you to spell, or Miss Piggy aided your perfect karate chop. You might do a killer Yoda impression, or have simply enjoyed any number of Oz’s impressive works as a director. One thing that’s for sure is that it’s highly unlikely that you’ve gone through your life and not been positively impacted by the extraordinary talent of Frank Oz.

Essential Frank Oz

Sesame Street

The Muppet Show

The Empire Strikes Back

The Dark Crystal

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

You can find out more about Muppet Guys Talking at www.muppetguystalking.com

Leave a Comment